Sunday, October 13, 2013

Rite of Passage: Death

These rituals were connected to the change of status and transitions in life a person experiences, such as birth, marriage and death.

The Viking-age peoples general view of death was it is inevitable.  Many believed that the time of a man’s death was determined at the moment of his birth by the three Norns, the women of destiny who lived under the World-tree Yggdrasil.
The rituals for the dead in Norse society varied from between different regions, different times and different social classes. The Norse pagan religion taught that, with few exceptions, the dead didn't go anywhere; bodies stayed in their graves. Yet at least some of the dead were buried in rich graves furnished with all sorts of objects for daily life. And some of the dead were buried in ships or in ship replicas, as if they were going on a journey. It's hard to relate the grave finds with the religious ideas found in the old Norse literature. And at least some of the rich grave goods must have been placed simply to impress the neighbors.

The poorest people were buried in a simple hole in the ground with a few belongings. Warriors were sometimes cremated, with their swords bent and shields broken, although this practice is more common in the times before the Viking era.

Most people were buried lying on their right side, along with a few of the things they used in everyday life. A prosperous man might be buried along with his horses, slaves, weapons and a variety of household goods.

In general, graves were not marked. Only the mounds remain. However, some graves were marked with stones or formations of stones; such as the boat shaped grave markers at the Norse era cemetery in Denmark.

Devotion to deceased relatives was a mainstay in Norse religion.  Ancestors constituted one of the most ancient and widespread types of deity worshipped in the Nordic region.  It is understood that some sort of ancestor worship was probably an element of the private religious practices of the farmstead and village. Often times. in addition to showing adoration to the standard Nordic Gods, warriors would toast to “their kinsmen who lay in barrows”.


There seems to be no one unified conception of the afterlife.  Some may have believed that the fallen warriors would go to Valhalla to live with Odin, others may have believed that there was no afterlife concept.


Spiritually, most people have heard about Norse Heaven Valhalla.  For Wiccans, this is similar to Summerland.  Odin built Valhalla, a great hall of the heroic dead where the wounds were healed and the feasting was forever.  Today, a solider that died on the frontlines might go here.  Odin would gather heroes and warriors who were slain in battle and bring them to Valhalla so they would fight alongside the Gods, in an attempt to strengthen and save the Gods in the final battle at the time of Ragnarok.

Some have heard about Norse Heaven Freya's Field.  Freya had the privilege of taking the first half of the souls of those warriors who had been slain in battle, while the remaining souls of the dead warriors belonged to Odin.  As leader of the Valkyries, she had considerable power.  Actually going onto the battlefield, Freya would gather them up and take them back with her to spend the after-life in her home (Folkvang, “Field of the Folk” ) in perpetual rest and recreation.  As a sweet and generous woman, she always invited their wives or lovers to come and live with them. 

Few have heard about Norse Hell Niflheim.  It was primarily a realm of primordial ice and cold for the dishonored dead.  Today, a solider that puts his or her rifle down and runs the other way might be sent here.  Even if he or she dies on the battlefield, they died with no honor.  Or if someone murders another person for fun they might be sent here.  The realm of death, Helheim, shares this part of the vast, cold region.  Also situated on this level is Nastrand, the Shore of Corpses and where the serpent Nidhogg eats corpses and gnaws on the roots of Yggdrasil.  Nastrand was the house or level for criminals, no feasting or rest. Nidhogg was a dragon that devoured the corpses of evil-doers.


And for the common dead, there was the realm of the dead, Helheim.  It was icy cold (like a corpse) and filled with slush, cold mud and snow.  But like its ruler (Goddess Hela), Helheim had many levels or sides and is described differently throughout records.  Souls of people who had died from sickness or old age, and for the souls of any other people whose deaths had not occurred through battle, were sent to the Goddess Hela.  Today, if a person fell off their roof and died they might be sent here.  Or if a child is murdered in the night they might be sent here.

Her realm is below the World Tree and is separated from the world of the living by a rapid river that the dead have to pass. The Prose Eddas say that the entryway to Hela's realm was guarded by the hellhound named Garm. Once through the gates, she judged them and decided whether their spirit was good or bad and to what degree. Then, after Hela had made had her assessment, she gave each soul it's just reward. Depending upon how they had been judged, the souls of the dead were settled into one of the nine levels of Helheim, which ranged from what might be seen as a form of paradise, all the way down to the dark horrors of Nastrand.

When someone dies and enters Hela’s realm, it was almost impossible for anyone on Earth to get them back. Even the Gods could not evade death.  The tale about the Death of Balder is one of the best descriptions of the journey into Helheim that I know of.  The story of Baldr's death is very old. Images on gold bracteates from the 6th century illustrate the story of his death...


"...The God Balder dies.  The Gods arranged a lavish funeral for their fallen friend. They turned Baldur’s ship, Hringhorni, into a pyre fitting for a great king. When the time came to launch the ship out to sea, however, the Gods found the ship stuck in the sand and themselves unable to force it to budge.  Not even mighty Thor could budge it.  After many failed attempts they summoned the brawniest being in the cosmos, a certain giantess named Hyrrokkin (“Withered by Fire”).  Hyrrokkin arrived in Asgard riding a wolf and using poisonous snakes for reins.  She dismounted, walked to the prow of the ship and gave it such a mighty push, the land quaked as Hringhorni was freed from the sand.

As Baldur’s body was carried onto the ship, his wife, Nanna, was overcome with such great grief that she died there on the spot and was placed on the pyre alongside her husband. The fire was kindled and Thor hallowed the flames by holding his hammer over them.  Odin laid upon the pyre his ring Draupnir and Baldur’s horse was led into the flames.  The ropes were cut and the flaming ship drifted out to sea with Odin's black ravens fluttered about the mast. 

All kinds of beings from throughout the Nine Worlds attended this ceremony: Gods, giants, elves, dwarves, valkyries and others.  Together they stood and mourned as they watched the burning ship disappear over the ocean.
Soon after, Hermod rode the eight-legged horse Sleipneir, who knew the way to Hela.  Hermod rode nine nights through ever darker and deeper valleys on his quest to rescue the part of Baldur that had been sent to Hela.  Finally, they reached the bridge that separates the world of the dead from the world of the living.

When he came to the river Gjoll (“Roaring”), Modgudr, the giantess who guards the bridge, asked him his name and his purpose, adding that it was strange that his footfalls were as thundering as those of an entire army, especially since his face still had the color of the living.  Hermod stated that he was the son of Odin and was seeking Hela to find his brother Balder.  He answered to her satisfaction and she allowed him to cross the bridge into Hela’s realm.

Hermod followed the dark road which soon led him to the gate.  There the fearful dog Garm stood snarling and straining at his leash but Hermod spurred his horse.  Sleipnir leapt high over the gate.

Upon dismounting, Hermod spotted Hela’s throne and Baldur, pale and downcast, sitting in the seat of honor next to her.  Hermod spent the night there, and when morning came, he pleaded with Hela to release his brother, telling her of the great sorrow that all living things, and especially the Gods, felt for his absence.  Hela responded, “If this is so, then let everything in the cosmos weep for him and I will send him back to you.  But if any refuse, he will remain in my presence.”

Hermod rode back to Asgard and told these tidings to the Gods, who straightaway sent messengers throughout the worlds to bear this news to all of their inhabitants.  And, indeed, everything did weep for Baldur – trees, stones men, Gods.  Everything, that is, save for one giantess: Thokk, who was none other than Loki in another disguise.  Thokk coldly told the messengers, “Let Hela hold what she has!”

And so Baldur remained with Hela until Ragnarok, when, after the cosmos was destroyed and re-created, he returned to bless the land and its inhabitants with his gladdening light and exuberance..."

There is more in the story about how Balder dies and what happens to Loki.  The whole story can be easily found online, The Death of Balder, or leave a comment if you want the whole story posted.

Death is the cessation of all biological functions that sustain a living organism.  It is natural.  Today there are many different types and practices associated with it but it is inevitable.

Hail to you, O gods and goddesses,
those of you who guard the underworld
and guide the dead on their final journey.
At this time of cold and dark,
I honor you, and ask that you watch over me,
and protect me when the day arrives
that I take my final journey.

So may it be!



  1. Nice! Very informative, and that excerpt painted a great picture of Baldur's funeral